Veterans news update for June 1

Veterans news update for June 1

Veterans news updateStudy: Bomb blasts may cause early aging in brains of troops (USA Today)
VA scientists have discovered signs of early aging in the brains of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans caught near roadside bomb explosions, even among those who felt nothing from the blast. Years after coming home from war, veterans are showing progressive damage to the brain’s wiring, according to a study published online Monday in Brain, A Journal of Neurology. “Generally as we age, the connections (in the brain) deteriorate. But with those people with blast exposure it appears as though it’s happening faster,” said Benjamin Trotter, a bio-medical engineer with the Department of Veterans Affairs and lead author of the study. Regina McGlinchey, a Harvard Medical School professor of psychology, VA scientist and study co-author, said the concern is that “what we generally see in older people in terms of declines in executive function, memory and planning would be happening at an earlier age.” Equally troubling is the lack of awareness of a blast injury. Many veterans studied said they never felt concussion-like symptoms such as dizziness, headaches or loss of consciousness. Others complained of those symptoms, but eventually saw them go away and military doctors concluded they had fully recovered. Yet in both cases, brain scans years later showed signs of degeneration and early aging. If symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia-like illnesses appear five or 10 years earlier in a large group of people, “this would have tremendous consequences for society,” said William Milberg, a Harvard Medical School professor of psychology, VA scientists and study co-author. “We would have to figure out on a much larger scale ways of taking care of people.”

Tighten GI Bill transfer rules, senators say (Military Times)
Congress appears intent on looking into the possibility of tightening the rules under which active-duty members can share Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits with family members. Tucked into the Senate version of the annual defense authorization bill is a provision that recommends defense officials review current policy in that area to ensure it “encourages the retention of individuals in the armed forces.” The provision also states that service secretaries should “be more selective in permitting the transferability of unused education benefits” to family members, while stopping short of mandating specific new changes or regulations. Although the provision merely expresses a nonbinding “sense of Congress,” it represents a willingness among some lawmakers to explore changes to the popular Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, particularly when the tuition money isn’t being used by veterans themselves. Under current rules, troops who serve six years and commit to at least four more can transfer their education benefits to a spouse or child to attend college. That covers tuition payments, book stipends and, in many cases, housing costs. The Veterans Affairs Department says more than 928,000 spouses and dependents used GI Bill funds to attend schools in the first five years that the Post-9/11 version was offered. That added $5.6 billion to the cost of the education benefits. Earlier this year, the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission recommended limiting transfer eligibility to troops who serve at least 10 years and sign up for at least two more. They argued that such a move would “better focus transferability on career service members,” the original goal of allowing the benefits to be shared.

The coming crisis in veterans’ care (The Virginian Pilot)
Editorial: “Several factors present a frightening future for veterans’ health care in America. With the U.S. population aging, a greater percentage of Americans will develop Alzheimer’s disease. In 10 years, the number of people 65 and older with the devastating disease is expected to jump by 40 percent. An increasing number of those will be veterans whose traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder have made them twice as likely to develop dementia. In five years, the youngest Vietnam veterans will be 65. Of those who had PTSD, 85 percent are suffering at least moderate impairment decades after combat. A 2013 study calculated that by 2020, about 5.8 million veterans will reach the age of 70 with substantial risk of Alzheimer’s. The health care facilities tasked with their care will need substantial changes to manage the influx. The Department of Veterans Affairs operates one of the largest health care systems in the country, serving 9.4 million veterans. But it has not served them well. … Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death among Americans. It’s the most common form of dementia, which slowly kills the ability to be independent, to think clearly, to remember. Eventually patients become bedridden, requiring constant care and exacting financial and emotional strain on their families and health care systems. … A 2013 study in the medical journal Current Alzheimer Research, “Military risk factors for cognitive decline, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease,” calculated that by 2020, the U.S. would see 423,000 new cases of Alzheimer’s among veterans. One-fourth of those would be linked to specific exposures and risk factors from military service. … America’s civilian health care system has been the subject of tiresome, tedious debates and arguments in Congress and across the country. What’s not up for debate is the need to take care of the men and women who gave up their health, chances at careers and years to serve our nation. Since 2001, 700,000 U.S. veterans have been diagnosed with a disability. Hundreds of thousands of aging veterans are coping with disabilities from Vietnam, Korea or World War II. Thousands more are coming home from Afghanistan with wounds that will require treatment in VA centers for years or a lifetime. The system already is in crisis. Understanding and preparing for the coming Alzheimer’s onslaught will require far more focus and determination than the VA – and Congress – have shown thus far.”

The risk of over-thanking our veterans (The New York Times)
Opinion: “TRAVELING through an airport recently, I witnessed a now-commonplace ritual: military personnel getting head-of-the-line privileges in the boarding area. As we complete the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, one of the legacies of the longest war in our history is how the public has rallied to support those who served. While this can seem superficial at times, there is not a vet alive who would prefer the other extreme. My father served in Vietnam, and the welcome home his generation received was a national disgrace. Unfortunately, the modern-day lionization of veterans has itself gone too far. In Washington, this knee-jerk support has resulted in policy decisions that will hurt both vets and the larger public over time. Since 2000, the Department of Veterans Affairs has seen its budget nearly triple. Its programs run the gamut from burial benefits to job training. But among the biggest cost drivers is the disability-compensation system, which now approaches $60 billion per year. These disability payments are separate from medical costs associated with treating an injury, and are set at varying levels to compensate injured veterans for an assumed inability to work. The average payout has risen 60 percent (inflation-adjusted) since 2000, and the proportion of veterans receiving some form of compensation has nearly doubled. And while most vets who receive disability checks deserve them, one of the worst kept secrets among those seeking a disability rating is that the system can be beaten. Claim the right combination of symptoms, whether you are suffering or not, and there is a decent chance you can get a monthly disability check, tax free, for the rest of your life. There are even blogs out there to walk you through the process of claiming an injury that cannot be disproved. Sometimes it takes no effort at all. When I left the Navy in 2005, I filled out a form and got a medical exam in order to document a fractured shoulder that I had sustained in the line of duty. Soon after, I received a rating and my first monthly direct-deposit payment. Not feeling entitled to anything other than medical care, I attempted to discontinue the payment, but was told there was no process for doing so. Even my ability to hold a full-time job had no bearing on my disability rating.”

Fewer homeless veterans, but VA’s deadline looms (Military Times)
Navy veteran Darryl Riley spent almost 25 years in and out of homeless shelters before landing in the U.S. VETS’ “Veterans in Progress” program earlier this spring. “This time feels totally different,” the 55-year-old veteran said. “In the shelters, they’re just putting a roof over your head, some food into you. Here, the accommodations are nicer, and they have employment programs to help get you trained for jobs. “I never had that chance in the past.” After leaving the Navy, Riley worked on construction sites around the Washington, D.C., area, but never managed keep enough savings to weather downturns in the job market. He found out about the 85-bed transitional housing program — funded through new federal grants — at a job fair just a block from his latest shelter stop. After a flurry of assistance from group officials, he’s in a downtown apartment and a new job training program, with a goal to find work quickly. “I’ve only got a few years left until retirement,” he joked. “I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.” Riley’s plan illustrates the success of recent efforts to end veterans homelessness by providing better outreach and sustainable resources for troubled individuals. But it also shows the challenge still ahead, with tens of thousands of veterans like Riley still on the streets or in danger of returning there. Five years ago, the White House vowed to end veterans homelessness by the end of 2015. At the time, even VA officials admitted such a goal was overly ambitious. Since then, the number of homeless veterans has been reduced by more than 25,000. When the 2014 numbers are released later this summer, officials expect around 40,000 to 45,000, to remain, a figure that has shrunk about 40 percent since 2010. Advocates say that’s impressive, but also acknowledge that getting to zero in the next few months is a massive challenge.

Veterans rally to get troubled Colorado VA hospital completed (The Denver Post)
Artie Guerrero of Golden has been talking to Veterans Affairs officials about a new Denver-area hospital for more than 20 years. So while he was an avid participant in a Sunday rally where veterans repeatedly chanted for Congress to provide money to “finish the damn thing,” Guerrero admitted he doesn’t expect much. “There have just been so many broken promises … I’ll probably die before they finish the thing,” said Guerrero, who was wounded in Vietnam in 1967. “It seems like every time a hole is dug, there’s just another disappointment.” More than 150 people turned out for the rally, held across the street from the embattled project. Congress has debated whether to complete the hospital since its price tag leapt to $1.73 billion, nearly triple the original budget. Construction is continuing this month in Aurora with a reduced workforce and a short-term infusion of federal cash that is expected to run out in about two weeks. If Congress doesn’t provide more money, it’s possible the project will be shut down. Asked about the likelihood that his fellow legislators vote for more money, U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, said he was optimistic, but added that success “will be a heavy lift.” Rather than come up with a permanent funding solution, Coffman said it’s likely Congress will pass another stopgap funding measure to keep the construction work going. The VA has suggested siphoning money from a $5 billion fund that Congress created last year to make the VA more efficient, but that idea has failed to marshal support among non-Colorado lawmakers, largely because of concerns about how that plan would affect VA projects in other states.

Lawmaker: VA must reform to get money for Colorado hospital (The Washington Times)
Congress will insist on significant changes in the Veterans Affairs Department before approving money to finish a vastly over-budget medical center outside Denver, Rep. Mike Coffman said Sunday. After a brief but boisterous veterans’ rally to demand the hospital be finished, Coffman said he was optimistic Congress will approve a long-term deal to pay for the project. “I know it’s a heavy lift, but I’m optimistic,” said Coffman, a Republican whose district includes the hospital About 150 people attended the rally, some riding motorcycles and others leaning on canes. They chanted and cheered in a parking lot across a side street from the half-finished complex in suburban Aurora. The project is expected to cost $1.73 billion, nearly three times last year’s estimate. Completion isn’t expected until 2017. The VA is struggling to persuade Congress to approve up to $830 million to finish it.

World War II veterans see shame in VA scandals (The Washington Times)
Marine Corps veteran Richard Taylor doesn’t have a high opinion of the scandal-plagued Department of Veterans Affairs. “I don’t think you could print it,” Mr. Taylor told a reporter while visiting the World War II Memorial on the National Mall on Saturday. “I have refused to even use the VA. My opinion is not good.” Mr. Taylor, a resident of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, and a veteran of the Korean War, was part of a contingent of about 300 veterans from Pennsylvania visiting Washington on a bus trip organized by the nonprofit Honor Flight Foundation to see the memorials. Many of the veterans, especially those in their 90s who served in World War II, knew it was likely their last time to visit the nation’s capital together and share stories of their service. Several of the aging veterans expressed disbelief over recent scandals at the Department of Veterans Affairs, an agency many of them depend on for health care and other benefits. “It’s a shame,” Mr. Taylor said. “A number of my friends are not satisfied at all with the VA.” Francis Di Santis, 92, an Army veteran from West Chester, Pennsylvania, said he has been frustrated with attempts to obtain lost service medals through the VA. “It’s been over a year,” he said. “I still haven’t heard anything.” But Mr. Di Santis, who served in the Pacific theater during World War II, did have praise for the agency’s health care services and its employees. “They’re good, and they’re always telling me that they can’t do enough for me,” he said.

Army combat veteran’s call for help lands him in jail (Raleigh News & Observer)
For years, Ryan Broderick has been trapped inside his mind, watching a constant reel of explosions that rocked the Army vehicles he had scrubbed of blood during three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since January, Broderick has been stuck inside a real jail, fortified by cinder blocks, surrounded by barbed wire. The government that Broderick upended his life to serve locked him up in Edgecombe County, about 75 miles east of Raleigh. In the eyes of federal officials, Broderick posed a threat to America and should be treated as a criminal. Broderick, 31, of Fayetteville, is being prosecuted for comments he let fly during a call to speak with a counselor at the Veterans Affairs suicide crisis hotline. He was frustrated and sleep-deprived. His words were clear: If he didn’t get the help he needed for his post-traumatic stress disorder, he would bring a gun to the VA hospital and Fort Bragg and start shooting. Little more than a day later, a dozen or so agents swarmed around him in the parking lot of his son’s day care center. He will stand before a judge on Monday in Raleigh to learn his fate on a charge of communicating threats. Over the last month, Broderick prepared to make a plea for mercy before a jury. Court filings late Friday show the government and Broderick have reached a plea agreement, though the terms are not clear. “I was just trying to get help,” said Broderick, a native of Canada who enlisted in the Army after high school. “I had no intentions of hurting anyone.” Like so many of America’s soldiers returning from combat over the last decade, Broderick has tried to swallow unspeakable memories. And like thousands of others, he has tried in vain to get swift and needed care from a beleaguered VA medical system. The lucky find a way to cope. Others, such as Broderick, have struggled to live with all they saw and did. As the wars wound down in 2011, as many veterans were killing themselves as soldiers were dying in combat.

Former VA director received another bonus before resigning under pressure (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
In the year before he announced his resignation on Oct. 4, 2013, Veterans Affairs regional director Michael Moreland was under scrutiny. Congressional leaders and families of veterans blamed him for failing to take action as a Legionnaires’ outbreak spread through the Pittsburgh Veterans Affairs Healthcare System in 2011 and 2012, leading to the deaths of six veterans and sickening at least another 16. He became the national poster child for the VA leadership’s bad decision-making when he accepted a $63,000 bonus and a Presidential Distinguished Rank Award at a black-tie dinner in Washington, D.C., in April 2013 — just three days after the VA’s Office of Inspector General issued a scathing report finding that systemic failures led to the Legionnaires’ outbreak. But VA documents recently obtained by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette through the Freedom of Information Act show that yet another bonus payment was in the pipeline. On Oct. 5, 2013, he was paid one final bonus by the VA: $37,195 for a “retention” bonus that was negotiated a year earlier on top of his $179,700 salary. In addition, a series of internal VA emails also obtained by the newspaper showed that Mr. Moreland was allowed to receive that full payment despite concern raised repeatedly by a high-level VA employee that it might be wise to end Mr. Moreland’s retention bonus early because it might be hard to justify giving him the full bonus if the public found out about it.   But no action was taken to stop his bonus from going through. And the timing of Mr. Moreland’s resignation allowed him to receive the full, 12 months of the retention bonus, which otherwise would have been prorated for the time he put in if he had resigned earlier in the year or been fired.

Veterans groups in Arizona struggle without money from raffle machines (
It could be game over for some Arizona veterans groups trying to stay afloat without revenue-generating raffle machines. Arizona gambling officials have been cracking down on several veterans groups in recent months. The low-stakes electronic games offered in private clubs operated by Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion and other groups are considered illegal gambling. The video terminals, which are operated with tokens and debit cards, have typically been a major source of funding for the cash-strapped organizations. “It’s very vital. We almost failed last year,” said John A. Simo, commander of American Legion Post 105. Post 105 is moving out of the Phoenix building it has occupied for 17 years partly due to a lack of money to keep it open. Without the games, “all we can do is car washes on the corner,” Simo said. Veterans groups have argued the electronic raffle games they run are more like sweepstakes than gambling, the Arizona Republic reported. But the state Department of Gambling said the activities are considered illegal under a 2013 court ruling and have been notifying groups. Department spokeswoman Amanda Jacinto said most groups have been complying. “Obviously, anybody who is raising money to help people legally, it’s hard to stand in the way of that. However, if you’re raising it illegally, unfortunately we have to enforce the rules,” Jacinto said. Meanwhile, several veterans groups are appealing the court ruling. Charley Leman, an attorney representing five groups, filed a motion in Maricopa County Superior Court on Thursday to block the state’s actions. Leman reiterated the argument that the games are more like raffles than gambling. The 2013 ruling occurred when an administrative law judge sided with the state Department of Liquor Licenses and Control against the Mesa Buckhorn Elks. The Elks had eight machines which ran on tokens tied to debit cards comprised of cash donations. While they were branded as “pretend gambling,” the games yielded real money. According to court records, the Elks made $1,000 a week for years. But the state argued it was gambling, an argument the judge upheld.

Texas lawmakers will not reach deal to overhaul veterans program (The Houston Chronicle)
Lawmakers will end the legislative session without making any changes to the state’s popular and expensive higher education benefit program for veterans, which had become the source of a protracted dispute between the House and Senate. On Saturday, negotiations to revamp the Texas Hazlewood Act in a way both chambers could agree on officially failed with just two days left in the legislative session, a key lawmaker announced. State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, told the Senate that he would dissolve the conference committee after weeks of talks. The House and Senate proposals were too far apart to get a deal to Gov. Greg Abbott by June 1, he said, adding that lawmakers were “kicking the can down the road in a manner that will place an even more difficult decision before us in 2017,” when legislators convene again in Austin. “To concur with the House would be to immediately make the program even more expensive in its current circumstances that are financially unsustainable,” he said. “The program is growing at an unsustainable rate whether the members of the legislature accept it or reject it.” The Hazlewood Act gives tuition and fee exemptions to Texas veterans who have served at least 181 days of active duty and who attend a public college or university in the state. In 2009, state lawmakers expanded the program under a new provision called the Hazlewood Legacy Program, which allowed a veteran to assign unused college credit hours to their spouse and dependent children.

North Dakota veterans search for health care options (Bismarck Tribune)
For many veterans of North Dakota, especially in western rural areas, taking advantage of much-needed heath care benefits can be a lengthy process when it involves traveling to a Veterans Administration facility in Fargo. While some procedures are not available by local outpatient clinics, a local health care provider could do the job. Jim Hanson, 68, of Bismarck, can recall the frustrations of traveling across the state for his medical needs after sustaining a wound in the Vietnam War. “When I lived in Devils Lake, I would have to travel to Fargo or Grand Forks quite a bit for medical care, because, at that time, we had no clinic in Devils Lake,” said Hanson, who served in the Army’s 101st as an infantry man. During the Memorial Day services at the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery, Sen. John Hoeven announced that the senate has passed the Access to Community Care for Veterans Act, introduced by Sen. Jerry Moran and co-sponsored by Hoeven and a bipartisan group of senators. “Providing our veterans with high-quality health care is one of the most important ways that we uphold our commitment to the men and women who have served our country’s military,” said Hoeven, who has worked for two years on the legislation, which amends the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014 to allow veterans to obtain health care services in their local community if a Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center or Community-Based Outpatient Clinic within 40 miles can’t provide the necessary care.  “Our bill will ensure that veterans can get services close to home, either through the VA or local private health care provider, regardless of where they live. That’s an enormous burden lifted for our veterans living in rural areas of the county, including those in western North Dakota,” Hoeven said. If the bill passes in the House, it has the potential to make health care for veterans more convenient.

Veterans Against ISIS founder reaching out for help (Breitbart News)
Veterans Against ISIS founder Sean Rowe appeared on FNC’s “The O’Reilly Factor” on Friday to discuss his group’s intentions to fight ISIS overseas and how the current group of 24 will need assistance with funding for supplies and arms before heading over. O’Reilly begged Rowe to consider the consequences but a confident Rowe did not waiver. “We can’t let fear incapacitate us, Bill,” Rowe explained. “They need help over there. No one can disagree with that. And who better than American veterans?” O’Reilly then asked Rowe how he was getting the money, to which he replied, “We are funding ourselves mostly and that’s why we are reaching out for help because we are going to need all the help we can get in what is sure to be a lengthy and demanding mission.”